Why Britain beats the far-right
I was on The Big Questions yesterday, to discuss whether Britain is complacent about the far-right.
Predictably, the debate quickly degenerated into Tommy Robinson versus the world. Are the EDL racist? Violent? What about Tommy's conviction for headbutting? And so on. That's a shame, because no-one really answered the core question. So, as I couldn't squeeze it into the show, here is my answer (which, by the way, is 'no').
There are three types of far-right threats as commonly understood.
The first is the terrorist one. There are the neo-Nazi groups and the likes of Anders Breivik. Around a dozen people are currently serving time in prison for far-right related terrorist activity. In the immediate aftermath of 7/7, the security services and the police perhaps did underestimate the threat from these groups as a result of a relentless focus on al-Qaeda. But I believe that has changed now, especially post-Breivik. Police and intelligence agencies are spending a lot of resources and effort on monitoring and disrupting these groups. It is a serious threat, but not on the scale of al-Qaeda related groups.
The second is that from groups like the English Defence League. This is not a terrorist threat, but the EDL can disrupt community cohesion, raise tensions and cause lower level violence or criminality. For all the bluster and noise the EDL creates, they are in fact quite small - rarely more than 500 people at their demonstrations, and are not getting any bigger. Complacent? I think not. The media and the police monitor their every move – probably giving them too much attention - and anti-fascist groups relentlessly scrutinise their activities. Their marchers are always outnumbered by counter-demonstrators.
Finally, there is the electoral threat from the BNP. The BNP is probably the country's most welcome national embarrassment. Fractured, incompetent, and currently polling at around 1 per cent. When there was a glimmer of possibility that the Nick Griffin could take Barking from Margaret Hodge a national campaign was mobilised and ensured he was obliterated.
Across large swathes of Europe, the far-right is growing. In France Marine le Pen polls at 20 per cent; in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands radical right wing groups are far more significant than here. All the factors that tend to help them grow are present in the UK too: social disclocation, high levels of immigration and pockets of poor integration, out of touch political elites. We should probably congratulate ourselves, because the UK is something of a shining light.
I submit this is because we respect the right to free expression and assembly, which is supported by a vibrant civil society and aggressively anti-extremist media. And, perhaps most importantly, we can draw on deep reserves of underlying tolerance among the population.
Complacency? Far from it.